By Doug Koztoski
With the Major League Baseball season about to begin, I already have my pick for Rookie of the Year. It is not, however, along the lines of an up-and-coming, power-hitting Detroit Tigers outfielder or a pitching prospect for the Washington Nationals.
Even so, my choice should please a baseball fan of any team. My selection: www.TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com.
The website, scheduled to launch on MLB’s Opening Day (March 31), focuses on an incredible baseball memorabilia collection. Frank Ceresi, the site’s curator, said the green light to develop the virtual venue came a couple of years ago.
Ceresi, who is also a lawyer, writer and professional sports memorabilia appraiser, has a background with managing collections since he served as curator for the National Sports Gallery (1997-2001) at the former MCI Center (now The Verizon Center) in Washington, D.C. “Through the gallery, I got to know several collectors,” he said.
“The site’s mission,” Ceresi continued, “is to educate the public about the history and significance of baseball in American culture using artifacts as benchmarks.”
TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com has a mini-Cooperstown feel to it and blends a user-friendly professional design with a good mix of game-used equipment (especially bats), historic contracts and documents, rare photographs and much more.
Even though many of the relics have a significant “wow” to them, I found myself finding an artifact, at times, which transcended the game and its basic history.
One of those “X-factor” artifacts, for instance, comes with the inscription: “Picked up on The Battle Field at Shiloh by G.F. Hellum.” This baseball was retrieved in April 1862 in Shiloh, Tenn., at the site of one of the bloodiest battles in Civil War history. Giles Hellum, an African-American orderly for the Union Army at Shiloh, later enlisted as a solider in the Union’s 69th U.S. Colored Infantry.
“It’s a lemon peel ball,” said Ceresi, of the common design from the 1850s and 1860s.
“A lot of baseball was played during the Civil War, and played on the battlefields.”
Other 19th-century pieces on the site include a King Kelly autographed program from an event honoring him in Boston, and a rare photo of the 1885-86 Original Cuban Giants, the first recognized professional African-American baseball team.
As of now, five sections make up a timeline on the site: 1845-79, 1880-99, 1900-19, 1920-39 and 1940-52.
“Each section begins with a quote and a brief introduction that gives a historical overview,” said Ceresi from his Northern Virginia office. “More segments will be added over the next two years.”
Ceresi, who is also a baseball collector, noted that the TNPM.com site has nine historians writing regularly for the online venue, including Paul Dickson. The Maryland-based writer has several books to his credit, including Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick. The Veeck offering earned Dickson the 2012 CASEY Award for best baseball book of the year – awarded by Spitball magazine.
Dickson described the site as “just stunning.” One of many elements on TNPM.com that Dickson praised was the images. “It brings a freshness to some photographs that have become shopworn to the eye,” he said. His first piece for TNPM focuses on U.S. Presidents and Opening Day.
Tim Wendel fills another starting spot on the site’s roster of historians. Wendel has written numerous books on baseball, including High Heat and Summer of ’68.
“I really like the parallel timelines on the site,” said Wendel. “You can follow baseball back through the years, like with Satchel Paige outdueling Bob Feller in the barnstorming years.”
The writer’s first piece for the online museum spotlights the up-and-down career and life of Steve Dalkowski, who some consider the hardest thrower to never make the big leagues.
Ceresi added that the site will also feature, on occasion, “an array of guest columnists” – some well-known – that share a passion for “the history and significance of baseball.”
Stepping up to the plate
In a video on TNPM.com, John Taube, a leading bat authenticator for PSA/DNA, introduces visitors to game-used bats and talks about the authentication process.
When asked to highlight some of the site’s quality game-used lumber, Taube first mentioned a pair of legendary New York Yankees sluggers.
“There is an outstanding small signature Lou Gehrig bat (1935),” said Taube. “It has beautiful eye-appeal, it looks like a piece of furniture.”
The Ruth piece comes from 1927, the year he bashed 60 homers, “It has 11 home run notches,” he noted, “Ruth notched his bat like a gunslinger.”
The name Martin Dihigo might not at first ring a bell for many baseball fans, but one of his bats resides on the site.
“It’s the only example that can be placed in his hands,” said Taube, of the former Negro League star’s hitting instrument. Dihigo, by the way, is a member of the Cuban, Mexican and National Baseball Halls of Fame.
Other bats, from a collection of more than 100, include the rarest type of “Black Betsy,” one that once launched many a line drive from “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, and “the only known signed bat acquired directly from Jackie Robinson,” said Ceresi. That Robinson item came from 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ lone World Championship season. So, as you can see, every “tree” in this forest is a Redwood in its own way.
One point the New Jersey-based Taube emphasized of the collection’s owner: “He is a stickler for authenticity.”
A playful part of the site comes via Molly Lawless, a Boston-based comic artist. “I do illustrative treatments in a comic book format of baseball history,” she said. “My specialty seems to be illustrating dead ball era stories.”
Drawing since childhood, Lawless started “baseball cartooning” in recent years. The first few pieces she has created for the site are a color version of the 1888 poem “Casey at the Bat;” one on Jim Creighton, “baseball’s first superstar;” and a highlight of a 1908 pitching duel between Ed Walsh and Addie Joss, which some consider the best one-game battle of all time.
Meanwhile, in addition to coordinating everyone’s efforts on the site, Ceresi will take care of a section called National Treasures. “It is where I write about the story behind the story of items in the collection,” he said.
Perhaps Wendel best summarized the online venue’s upcoming launch when he said, “I’m just excited. The site is going to be a treasure trove for anybody interested in baseball. It’s just going to grow and grow.”
Yes, TNPM.com is my Rookie of the Year front-runner for sure, and do not be surprised if it gets several annual votes for MVP – the Most Visually Pleasing of baseball memorabilia sites, as well.